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Feature: Environmental Sciences

The Complex World of Water

New York has water in abundance—some 4,000 lakes and ponds and 70,000 miles of rivers and streams feeding into some of the world's largest bodies of water. Cornell has water experts in equal measure.
By Lauren Chambliss

Complex World of Water

Tracking down CALS water experts is a bit like tracing the source of the mighty Susquehanna River. There are so many diverse faculty streams all contributing to Cornell's vast pool of knowledge that it is almost easier to find someone whose work does not, in some way, involve water.

Water trickles through the resumés of more than 65 faculty members in 12 different departments and four colleges. CALS alone has more than 45 graduate and undergraduate courses on water issues.

Rebecca Schneider

Rebecca Schneider

"With our faculty and resources, we can be one of the premier water programs in the country," says Rebecca Schneider, PhD '94, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources. "As a resource, oil has historically gotten more attention, but water is potentially an even bigger issue. Already, half of the world lives without adequate supplies of clean water."

Tell that to citizens of the southeastern United States, where last spring a severe drought pitted city against city and state against state for scarce water resources. Things got so heated that at the height of the dry spell, two Georgia lawmakers introduced legislation to move the state's northern border to annex part of the Tennessee River to correct what they called an 1818 surveyor's error. South Carolina sued North Carolina over plans to dip into the Catawba River, while a court ruling stopped Georgia from tapping extra water from Lake Lanier, ending what Alabama Governor Bob Riley called Georgia's "massive water grab."

Susan Riha

Susan Riha

Even in places where there is plenty of water, there are rising concerns about quality. A recent report in a respected hydrology journal estimated that five million Americans annually get sick from water-related diseases. Unclean water is affecting the environment, too. Efforts to clean up major water bodies—such as the Chesapeake Bay, into which the Susquehanna feeds, and the Long Island Sound—have been ongoing for years. Last year, research by the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as an investigation by Associated Press, found traces of pharmaceuticals—including antibiotics, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones—in the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans. Scientists recently discovered "feminized" male fish in the Potomac River, which some are linking to man-made estrogens, spermicides, and other drugs filtering into wastewater and on into the ecosystem.

"Water is a complex world," says Susan Riha, director of Cornell's Water Resources Institute. "You have water transportation systems, wastewater, fish, wildlife, water treatment, groundwater, construction and development, flooding, and agriculture. All of these factors interact with each other."

Enter CALS. Although they have many different points of entry, the faculty and staff who work on water issues have one thing in common: an overarching sense of urgency about the need to help the public, politicians, and regulatory agencies change the way they think about water management.

City Water, Country Water

Addressing watershed management issues in the New York City watershed has been a focus of CALS water projects since the early 1990s. Back then, New York City's water was a mess. Among other things, it contained too much nitrogen, phosphorous, and other agricultural nutrients. Nitrogen and phosphorus are naturally occurring nutrients that are critical to support plant life in freshwater and marine ecosystems. But too much of either nutrient, especially nitrogen in seawater and phosphorous in freshwater, causes an overabundance of phytoplankton and other organisms, which in turn use up available oxygen and kill fish and other aquatic life. Simply put, algae and bacteria thrive; fish die. High contaminant levels also require more chlorination to make water potable.

Todd Walter

Todd Walter

For the past 15 years, Cornell scientists— including hydrologists, bioengineers, and epidemiologists—in partnership with New York City watershed managers and Catskills farmers, have monitored, modeled, and constantly updated best management practices so that today the water running through 6,000 miles of pipes, aqueducts, and tunnels from the Catskills to New York City is pure and clean. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently rated New York City's tap water among the highest quality in the world. That's good news for the nine million customers who tap more than 1.1 billion gallons of fresh water a day. Cornell's Soil and Water Lab, run by Tammo Steenhuis and M. Todd Walter and housed in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering (BEE), is on the frontline of protecting New York City's water supply.

Recently, CALS scientists indentified areas on farms where runoff into streams—and thus into the watershed—is most likely to occur. BEE assistant professor Walter's research has shown that "saturated sites," areas of the landscape where water naturally collects, serve as sinks that effectively concentrate the "bad" nutrients from farms. When rains come, the runoff from these saturated sites goes straight into streams and into drinking water and coastal bays. Working with climate scientists and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, among others, Walter and Steenhuis's lab has developed a model to help guide land-use practices in Delaware County, the epicenter of the New York City watershed.

"Figuring out that these small areas, or saturated sites, cause most of the problem, we are able to create a model for all of Delaware County," says Walter. "It is as simple as farmers not placing manure piles near these saturated sties. In many cases, we can even predict when a particular site is most likely to be a problem at what time of year."

People Power

Science can pinpoint the source of problems and propose solutions, but it takes behavioral change on the part of people—farmers, civic leaders, and residents—to make a difference.

Shorna Brousard Allred

Shorna Brousard Allred

"The things we do as individual landowners, farmers, and residents impacts the quality of water hundreds of miles away," says Shorna Broussard Allred, associate professor of natural resources. "It is much easier to regulate an end-ofpipe discharge than it is to convince residents to do something different with their lawns, or for farmers to change long-standing agricultural practices."

Broussard Allred, who studies the intersection between human behavior and the environment, is currently working with officials in Dutchess County, through Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), to help design strategies to motivate human behavioral change as part of massive countywide effort to clean up the Wappinger Creek, part of the New York City watershed. Dutchess County has been rapidly developing and subject to flooding in recent years. Exurban landscapes with development—roads, parking lots, lawns, and homes, for example—create the perfect setup for floods as the Earth's natural sink, the ground, becomes covered with surfaces that increase runoff into streams and rivers during storms.

Meanwhile, in nearby Ulster County, Cornell Cooperative Extension is coordinating the development of a stream management plan for the upper Esopus Creek, above the Ashokan Reservoir, in the Towns of Olive and Shandaken. The project involves local citizens and leaders in prioritizing actions and recommendations for long-term stewardship of the stream corridor. Among other things, CCE is involving local 4-H clubs in stream monitoring.

Designer Ditches

Robert Howarth

Robert Howarth

Storm-water management is a science. For the past several hundred years, the primary engineering approach to dealing with large rains or snow melts has been to create systems that "move water away from the landscape as fast as you can," says Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology. "But that sends nitrogen and other toxins zooming to the sea." Howarth was among the first scientists to study the effect of nitrogen pollution in sensitive coastal rivers and bays, including the Chesapeake Bay.

Cornell research shows that a better technique is to slow down water runoff so that it has more time to sink into soil and replenish groundwater resource, rather than hasten its movement to streams, rivers, and ultimately the sea. One reason to slow water drainage is simple: less messy sewage contaminating our waters. Most wastewater treatment plants were built in lowlands or flood plains, relying on gravity to facilitate the flow of wastewater from homes and businesses to the treatment plant. That works as long as there is a controlled supply of wastewater, but as soon as there is a big storm—as little as one inch of rain—many treatment facilities, called CSOs for combined stormwater sewer overflow, are designed to dump the overflow, essentially untreated wastewater, straight into surrounding waterways.

In part because of aged infrastructures, and in part because of increasing intense periods of rainfall, the top source of pollution in municipal water is no longer nonpoint source pollution from agriculture but from water treatment facilities, says Water Resources Institute Director Riha.

Roadside ditches are a source of river-clogging sediment and other contaminants.
Rebecca Schneider

Roadside ditches are a source of river-clogging sediment and other contaminants.

Schneider says one way to avoid downstream flooding that overwhelms waste treatment facilities is to slow down water as it moves across the landscape. Roadside ditches, for example, are a critical link in the water supply chain because they act as rapid conduits for runoff and are a source of river-clogging sediment and other contaminants.

Slowing down the flow of water in roadside ditches helps prevent flooding, keeps sediment to a minimum, and protects water quality. Increasing forested canopy cover, hydro-seeding ditches so they are not bare, and letting water be captured in basins or detention ponds—Mother Nature's biological filters—gives the water time to absorb back into the earth, rather than rushing pell-mell toward the sea.

Cornell Cooperative Extension has worked extensively throughout the state, and especially in the Hudson and Delaware Valleys close to New York City, to educate transportation workers, water regulators, policymakers, and citizens about the importance of "re-plumbing" our watersheds to better manage rainfall.

Ditch management is but one aspect of the CALS water portfolio. The Water Resources Institute is currently advising the New York Department of Environmental Conservation on several hot topics, including what sort of environmental safeguards may be needed with natural gas drilling, which creates wastewater, now taking place in the Southern Tier of New York and Pennsylvania.

Thinking Big about Water

Environmental scientists at CALS address watershed issues like runoff caused by major
water events.
Bill Hecht

Environmental scientists at CALS address watershed issues like runoff caused by major water events.

The recent drought in the South got Cornell scientists and extension educators thinking: would New York ever need to share one of our most abundant resources with our southern neighbors?

It isn't an idle question. Under even conservative climate-change forecasts, the world is expected to experience shifting weather patterns, especially related to precipitation—how much will fall, in what form, and when. In New York, models predict more extreme precipitation events, such as the massive rainfall in the summer of 2006 that caused flooding in the Susquehanna watershed, killing several people and costing millions in property damage.

One difficulty with even discussing whether New York could manage its rich water resources enough to share, or even sell, water to drier states is that water does not belong to any one state. Indeed, scientists say the only way to approach water policy is from a watershed perspective, which means looking at a whole ecosystem that can involve multiple states. How upstate farmers in New York State manage fertilizers and cow manure can affect the soft-shell crab count on Maryland's Eastern Shore, some 400 miles away. That is why large bodies of water, such as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, are monitored by regulatory bodies with multi-state representation.

Anthony Hay

Anthony Hay

Meanwhile, policy always lags behind scientific discoveries. Biogeochemist Howarth's latest study, for instance, shows that a sizeable portion of nitrogen pollution in coastal systems can be traced to metropolitan denizens, or more precisely to their cars. This may, in part, explain why nitrogen levels in the Chesapeake Bay remain high despite changes in agricultural practices that have reduced the flow of nutrients from farms into streams.

"What we need is a master plan for water management that ties science and research to policy prescriptions and management," says Anthony Hay, associate professor of microbiology, who is currently studying levels of pharmaceuticals in our water supply, among other things. "Our citizens depend on clean water, but we can't assume it will be there unless we start to manage it better."